From starting life in Japan before coming to Canada, to moving around 9 different billets homes in his first year of junior alone before finding a home in Steinbach and then, committing to Division 1, it's been quite the journey for Roman Bengert.
The story begins 9288 km away from Steinbach. “I was born in Kyoto, Japan. I lived there until I was 7 years old and then I moved to Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia.” It's a part of his life that he has not forgotten about. “I still go back every summer. I spend time with family and friends. I still speak Japanese, not as much as I'd like, but enough to get by.”
If you thought that Roman only discovered hockey once he came to the Great White North, you'd be mistaken. “I started when I was 5 or 6, so I played in Japan. My father and mother are both goalies, so I watched them growing up. I've been immersed in hockey, even in Japan.”
Moving to Cole Harbour allowed Roman to get a lot more ice time. “When I played in Japan, we had a hockey team or hockey program and played some games. I probably played only once a week in Japan, once I moved, we played quite a bit more hockey. It was nice to be in a hockey community. It brought me up nicely, lots of experience and support from the community.”
As you could expect, moving to Canada from Japan took an adjustment period for Roman. “The language barrier was tough. It's not very similar languages for sure and the cultures are very different as well. But, I think hockey was a big way to get connected with friends and different people.”
Coming from a different part of the world, into a new culture and new atmosphere, Roman experienced something a lot of kids have had to deal with... bullying.
“At that age, it's tough. There is not as much of a way to break that barrier in communication. You're so young and ignorant in a sense. It was a little tough, I faced my fair share of bullying and stuff. We've all experienced it, I think, at some point in our life time.” Its something that Roman continues to battle against. “I want to help kids that are being picked on or who might be an introvert and just be there for them.”
Roman continued to go to school and play hockey. He graduated from Auburn Drive High School and played his final year of midge hockey in the valley, before moving on to junior.
This is when Roman's journey truly kept him moving in all different directions.
“Living on my own, well, living with a billet family, living outside of home is definitely different. It's not the easiest transition but I felt I was able to cope with it pretty quickly. I ended up moving around a lot that first season. I went through about 9 billet homes that year, living accommodations were never solid, I was always moving around, living off suitcases. It was difficult, it was a test of my character, but, it really built me as a person, not just as a hockey player.”
Roman's hockey life would take him to all different parts of North America. “I started with a tryout in Gatineau, Quebec with the QMJHL team there, then went to Cumberland Grads which is a CCHL team for a part of tryouts and I also went to Smiths Falls. I played a couple months there, only played one game and then I sat on the bench. Then, had some tryout opportunities in the Maritime and Montreal as well. Couple of other teams as well in Nova Scotia. Eventually, I decided to go to Point Mallard, which is a NA3 team in Alabama. I played my final two months of my season there. It turned out great, they welcomed me with open arms and I wouldn't have ended up in Steinbach without that organization.”
Going from Canadian living to Alabama was another culture jolt for the netminder, but one he was ready to face head on. “They have, I mean, I think it's the southern hospitality they pride themselves on, but it was a very nice community. Interestingly, they really enjoyed their hockey and the food was really great as well.”
The world of hockey can be small at times and it was a chance connection that started Roman down his path to being a Piston. “So the story from Point Mallard is, one of their owners and GM had a roommate by the name of Steve Briere, he's a goalie coach and works now for the Toronto Maple Leafs now. But, I was able to get a hold of Steve and went to his goalie camp during the summer in Minneapolis. It's funny cause Jeremy Wik, who was in Steinbach last season, was also at that camp and we both got connected to Paul (Dyck), and we both landed a tryout in Steinbach. From there, it was just a process making the team and then maintaining the starting position.”
Roman can vividly remember the first time he walked into the storied TG Smith Centre. “I was with my dad. We had researched the rink, it's actually built almost identically to the one in Cole Harbour. It's a bit of an older style rink, so in a way, it almost felt like home, which actually helped quite a bit.”
Even though he had only talked to him a little bit, Roman knew he would be in good hands with Coach Paul Dyck. “I knew about his past, obviously he has great hockey knowledge. I wanted to do well for him and the team. My priority had to be a bit selfish in a sense. I wanted to prove myself to the team and to Paul as well, that I could play on a Junior A team, especially with moving around so much. I wanted to have a home finally.”
A home was what he found as Roman would break camp a member of the Steinbach Pistons. But, it wasn't the way he would have hoped. Despite being named to the team, he would have to split time with his friend Jeremy Wik, not an ideal situation for Roman who admits it was a battle but one he took the positives out of. “It was tough, it was a good challenge to have though. It was fair challenge and we got along really well. I respect him very much. We battled in a fair and respectful way.”
As the season came to a close, the Pistons named Bengert the starting goalie for the stretch drive and playoffs. Roman knew it was a big opportunity, but also, carried a big responsibility. “There was a sense of relief but also knowing I had the trust and respect from the guys was nice. I think from there, it was focusing on the teams game rather then focusing on staying in the net.”
In the first round, the Pistons won in a sweep but two of the games on the road were overtime wins and it's an experience Roman hasn't forgotten for a special reason. “It was actually my first playoff series victory in my lifetime. I think it was to build me up personally. I developed from that series and learned what it takes to win a playoff series.”
A tough match up waited in round two as the Winkler Flyers grabbed a 3-1 advantage in the series, pushing Steinbach to the brink of elimination. While there were questions being asked, no one questioned the goaltending. Roman explains what he was feeling after Dyck stuck with him. “It meant a lot, it showed that he had trust in me. I really appreciated it. At that point, I needed to step up my game and fight back for the team to save the season. Heading into game 7, we felt like we were going to win it. That game kind of flew by for me. I just remember the celebration in the dressing room afterwards and the great feeling of winning that series after a long battle.”
After game 5 of the finals, a tough loss eliminating the Pistons, a 19 year old Bengert remembers the feelings of looking around the room. “It was pretty emotional. I roomed with Cole Smith last year, knowing his junior career was done, even though he was moving on to bigger things, I looked around at guys that might not play hockey again, it was very sad and emotional for me.”
Once the season is completed, teams still have a bit of business to attend to in what's called the “Exit Interview”. It's an opportunity for staff and the players to map out what is expected heading into the next season.
For Roman, it was a bittersweet moment. “He (Dyck) brought up that Jeremy would not be coming back and I will be acquiring the number 1 role, the number 1 position. For the summer, I trained to become a starter. A confident starter in the league, rather then training to just stay on a team or make a team again. The training sessions changed a bit. It was purely just so we could win this season. Mentally, I prepared a lot better coming into the season. Everything just fit in better and I was just a lot more comfortable coming into this season.”
Funny how the game of hockey can work out sometimes. Bengert went from being in a battle for starts to now being a mentor to a young, up and coming goalie of the future, Matt Radomsky. The 17 year old of from Winnipeg has made quite the impression on Roman this season. “Matt's been great. He's a great character. I've heard from teammates that he was going to be a great goalie but I didn't expect him to be this good. He has put pressure on me to keep my role as well, but at the same time, we have a great relationship, we can talk about anything. I hope to be a role model for him.”
After travelling all over the hockey landscape. After battling to get not just a number 1 spot but also fighting to find a home, Roman Bengert had found what he was looking for. And it only got better from there.
“I've committed to Lake Superior State University.” Roman says with a proud smile. “They called me pretty recently to contact me and confirm that had interest in me. From there, I just, in a sense ignored it and played my game. The wins kept piling up and actually, after the Winkler loss they called me. The sent an offer and almost immediately, I accepted.”
Roman knew early on that he wanted to further his education through hockey. “Since I was a little kid, even growing up in the East Coast where commitments are not that common, it's more so going to the QMJHL route, it was always my dream or goal to go to school with hockey. Whether it's CIS, Division 1 or Divison 3 that was my goal. There were lots of bumps in the road to achieving my goals and dreams but, even two years ago I tried to stay focused and that's probably why I stuck around playing hockey, because it was my goal, it was my dream.”
Lake Superior State University or LSSU for short, is seemingly the perfect place for Roman and felt it right away. “It just seems to work well. It's a very young team with a bright future. A good coaching staff, good goalie coach and the location just seemed to fit well. There's a lot that stood out, LSSU has the full package for me, from education to athletics, it all seemed right. I'll be going in the fall of 2017 and for now, they've told me I can battle for a starting job.”
But it's not just hockey that has him looking forward to the future. “I'll be taking a bachelor in science for mathematics, which is one of their stronger programs. I'm very excited, I've been waiting a very long time to go back to school.”
Even though he knows where he will be going next year and it's good that have that off his mind, his goals for this year haven't changed. “It's about finishing strong, finishing in first and then playoffs. That's where my mind is at now.”
For the man who started playing hockey in Japan, moved around trying to find a chance to play the game he loved before finding a home in Steinbach, Manitoba, Roman Bengert will always have a special connection to this team and this community. “It's been incredible. Right from the staff to the teammates to the community to the billets, there is not a negative thing I can say. They have supported us the whole way, the whole time I've been here. Everything from attendance to sponsorship to giving us opportunities at other events, it's just been incredible.”